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Building on the Iran Deal
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October 2015

By Daryl G. Kimball

The historic nuclear nonproliferation agreement struck on July 14 between Iran and six world powers is moving forward.

Now the task is to implement the deal and reinforce it. Leading states in and outside the Middle East should build on the deal by jointly exploring additional barriers against further nuclear proliferation in the region and beyond. 

The agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, will severely curtail Iran’s nuclear capabilities for at least 15 years and put in place a multilayered verification and monitoring regime. By blocking Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb, the agreement also helps head off nuclear competition in the unstable Middle East.

The agreement contains innovative but time-limited provisions that go beyond the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and standard International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. These and other measures could be applied indefinitely if pursued on a regional and even global basis by the United States and other leading countries. Among the options are the following:

Expand application of additional protocols. Region-wide adoption of and adherence to additional protocols, which will provide the IAEA with enhanced monitoring and inspection authority in Iran under the agreement, would help to guard against illicit military nuclear activity elsewhere. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria are among the states that have not concluded an additional protocol with the IAEA.

One approach would be to update the law governing U.S. civil nuclear cooperation to require cooperating states to adopt an additional protocol and early-notification procedures. Another would be for the 48-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group to agree not to engage in any civilian nuclear cooperation with a state in the Middle East unless it has taken those steps.

Ban production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium. In the agreement, Iran agreed not to enrich uranium beyond 3.67 percent uranium-235 for a period of at least 15 years. Iran has indicated a willingness to extend that restriction if other countries in the region follow suit. A goal of U.S. policy should be to secure a region-wide commitment to establishing a ceiling of 5 percent U-235 for uranium enrichment.

A related strategy would be to accelerate the phaseout of reactor fuel with an enrichment level greater than 5 percent for any purposes by any country and to provide technical support to convert reactors fueled with highly enriched uranium to low-enriched fuel.

Iran also committed not to separate plutonium from spent fuel in its reactors for at least 15 years. A permanent region-wide ban on reprocessing could also be adopted.

If additional countries chose to pursue enrichment in the Middle East or elsewhere, they should be encouraged to allow the same continuous IAEA monitoring at key nuclear facilities to which Iran is subject under this agreement.

Encourage lifetime fuel-supply and fuel take-back guarantees. To help obviate Iran’s justification for increasing its enrichment capacity beyond the agreement’s limit of 5,060 of its first-generation centrifuges, the IR-1, any country that supplies additional power reactors to Iran could provide fuel supply guarantees for the lifespan of the reactor and agree to take back the spent fuel to deny Iran access to the plutonium in the fuel. Russia already has such an arrangement with Iran. The United States should strongly encourage lifetime fuel-supply arrangements for any country in the region seeking nuclear reactors.

Forgo nuclear weapons-related experiments. In the deal, Iran agreed to a ban on all nuclear weapons-related experiments, even though some ostensibly have civilian applications. By encouraging other states in the region and elsewhere to voluntarily declare or reach a memorandum of understanding with the IAEA that such experiments, if conducted, would constitute a violation of their safeguards agreements, confidence in the NPT would be strengthened.

Encourage region-wide adherence to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Nuclear test explosions enable states to prove new warhead designs, particularly smaller, lighter warheads for delivery on ballistic missiles. The 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) bans all such tests. Currently, three states in the Middle East—Egypt, Iran, and Israel—must ratify the CTBT to facilitate its entry into force. Iran and Israel have signed the treaty, and their current leaders have expressed general support for the treaty.

To reinforce Iran’s commitment to a future without nuclear weapons and increase security in the region, all CTBT states-parties should actively encourage states in the Middle East that have not signed and ratified the CTBT, including Saudi Arabia, to do so and to fully support the CTBT International Monitoring System, as well the development of the on-site inspection capabilities that will be available after the treaty enters into force.

The Iran deal is a major step forward. The United States and other leading governments can strengthen it further by advancing additional nonproliferation initiatives in the years ahead.

Posted: October 1, 2015